Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Longest Day (1962)


Fox founder Daryl Zanuck never tired of producing, and even at the ripe old age of 60 he once again took up the task to spearhead the most ambitious WWII to date. He bought the rights to Cornelius Ryan’s celebrated novel about D-Day, The Longest Day, and brought it to vivid, B&W life in the fall of 1962. A WWI soldier himself, he no doubt felt this film needed to be made, and the honorific tone permeates every scene of this grand, three-hour epic. It’s got John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, brave American soldiers dying for their country; we’re only missing the National Anthem to complete the picture.

Yet, in many ways this departed from he usual patriotic fare of the era. Zanuck made a concerted effort not to emulate glory-filled paeans of the past. Day, with its gritty black and white cinematography, more closely resembles the stark newsreel footage of the war movie audiences had been watching for decade. Apart from the occasional Beethoven’s Fifth and a few kettle-drum booms, there is no score to speak of. In the interest of verisimilitude, all foreigners speak their own, respective languages (mainly French and German), with subtitles as translation. And battlefield speeches, a staple of the war movie genre, are kept to a minimum – most of the dialogue s information-based, and most of it historically accurate, according to researchers. The result? A hit, both critically and commercially; audiences, by the 1960s, no doubt felt it was time for a more realistic look at a war they had spent the 50s trying to put past themselves.

It’s June 5th, as he film opens, and across Europe the questions buzzes: when will the Allies made an amphibious landing in France, potentially liberating the country and marching Eastward to defeat Germany, effective ending the war in Europe? German high command keeps ts codebreakers busy with the query, and the French resistance keeps their ears to the radio for cryptic poetry which might afford the answer. The Americans and Brits are ready, itching to go, in fact, as the scheduled landing has already been postponed due to the weather several times. But U.S. generals Eisenhower and Bradley know that one more postpone would set hem back to July, and so Ike himself makes he official decision: Allied forces will land on the French beaches at Normandy at daybreak on June 6th, 1994: D-Day.

It defies logic, he Germans believe, and so they ignore the possibility. When the likelihood increases, they are afraid to awaken their temperamental Fuhrer, and so entire reserves of potentially lifesaving Panzier divisions are left idle. The paratroopers arrive first, well beyond the bulkheads, in the countryside, primarily to serve as diversionary tactics, particularly with their use of dummy models. Then the warships start shelling the beaches, until finally the infantry arrives – thousands of them – to the defending Germans’ shock. Storming up the Omaha and Utah beaches, they overcome several unexpected obstacles: Henry Fonda, as Teddy Roosevelt Jr., discovers his unit missed the landing point by about ten miles some of the paratroopers miss their mark and wind up, tied up (literally), on trees and church steeples; John Wayne suffers a fractured foot and must conduct his operations infirm, and Robert Mitchum leads his boys up a cliff to take over a strategic German turret, never mind the extensive casualties that might otherwise prohibit such an undertaking.

And of course, we all know the outcome, but even the finale is muted – again demonstrating the grit audiences were ready for. (We close with a shot of an overturned helmet on the beach, and drums rolling as the credits do also.) But at he same time, it’s hard to fathom that the film had mass appeal; I’d presume that much of its audience were veterans themselves, as well as their kith and kin. We go back and forth between so many locations and shuttle between so many characters that I daresay if you’re not a WWII aficionado, you’re bound to be a bit confused. Still, I wasn’t so much asea that I couldn’t get the gist of it, and perhaps I’d even applaud the work for painting such a vast canvas. After all, it was a vast operation, and such a narrative structure was used again in two other films I admired: The Thin Blue Line and Gettysburg. 

I mentioned grit as one of Day’s attributes, and of course I’m placing it in a historical perspective with the praise. Since then, the war film has changed immensely, and in many ways Day actually pretty quant compared with modern offerings, especially those which depict the Vietnam War. But even Saving Private Ryan, whose first 30 minutes depicted the same event as Day, upped the ante with its graphic realism and unrelenting intensity.

Of course, that is the film that will inevitable be compared to Day the most, and it probably should be. I think both films are great, and so I’ll refrain from making any qualitative judgments, but it’s interesting to note the differences in their approaches. Steven Spielberg, with Ryan, clearly wanted to show the horror of WWII, something you couldn’t do in 1962 without being perceived as unpatriotic, and so he depicted the landing Allies as ducks in a shooting gallery, picked off wholesale before even stepping on the sand. Day shows this at a distance, but takes care to show just as many charging forward, and underplays their helplessness by showing the preemptive Naval shelling and paratrooper landing.

But, though Day might seem to be the more conventional of the two, it’s also a lot softer on the enemy. With roughly half of the opening devoted to the German side, it actually humanizes them, and paints them more as helpless stewards to a fanatical madman. And – here’s the big thing – the word “Nazi” is never mentioned. In the decades since, at least in the movies, the Germans have become far more vilified, partially due to greater Holocaust awareness and revelations of the true depth of their evil. “Nazi” is sure mentioned in Ryan, and we barely get any kind of depiction of them, certainly not a humanizing one. In essence, Days examination of the war is more a cerebral, stylistic one, certainly not a moral one. It just wasn’t time yet.

And, in being so cerebral, and covering such a vast swath, it keeps you arm’s length from the characters. Day has much to say about its dramatis personae, but little of it is actually dramatic. We’re introduced to a soldier early on who had just won a windfall in poker, and we expect to follow him throughout the invasion, but we don’t really. Loads of grunts and generals are paraded through Day’s first act, only to get lost in the shuffle. Only stars truly stand out. Henry Fonda, as Teddy’s son, is a marvelous depiction of privilege taking a back seat to patriotism, and John Wayne’s officer is all growly gruff, standing out in a scene where he demands that dead, hanging paratroopers be cut down to preserve their dignity. But both stars have pre-packaged personalities; it’s not in the writing, which Ryan just lifted from his novel, or the direction (there were several, one for each nationality).

But Day doesn’t want to be a character study; it wants to be a comprehensive, authentic historical epic. And it is. If it aims to make the viewer think more closely about America’s greatest military event, it succeeded, at least with me. There were times when the film felt like the longest movie (sorry, had to throw that in), but it’s a case where the length justifies the end result, because even if I didn’t enjoy watching every second, I enjoyed reflecting on those seconds. Even the gunplay in the third act, when it turns into Sgt. Rock time.

Random observations: only one title graphic, all credits come at the end (the second time in this collection).

Keep your eyes peeled for the famous scene of Red Buttons hanging from the church steeple by his parachute. He survives! (He doesn’t The Poseidon Adventure).

And look fast for Sean Connery of the Scottish brigade, his last film role before James Bond.

All told, an important film – see it for history, entertainment, and the history of entertainment.

Rating:  ***1/2

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Hustler (1961)


(Back to "Normal" font; felt like the large was too large. We'll see how it goes.)

At last, we come to a film that presages the New Hollywood movement that shook up the system starting in the mid-sixties, and continuing all the way up to the early 80s. This is my era – these were the types of movies that made me love the movies – films about important ideas, mature themes, characters that jumped off the screen with gritty, earthy honesty, and stylistics that transcended the usual picture-perfect look that characterized the vintage age. The New Hollywood movement broke all the rules, and forever shattered the studio system that tried vainly to keep them.

I could say a zillion things about The Hustler, and I probably will soon enough, but I’ll start by admiring just how dateless it feels. Yes, it was filmed in B&W (the majority of films still were in the early 60s), but it has a raw edge that gives it an independent film feel. It begins with freeze-frame opening credits over stark shots of a pool game, and with an avant-garde jazz score. Paul Newman as the now-legendary Eddie Felson enters the picture, and he possesses a Brando-esque nonchalance throughout the first third of the film- smoking, drinking, shooting – spouting spare but poetic dialogue with the ordinary tenor of daily life. I just mentioned Brando, and it occurred to me just how much his acting approach changed the movies, and not just technically. Unlikeable characters like Eddie could now inhabit the screen, and the only thing that really mattered was that they were real.

But Eddie, of course, is a fabulous pool player – the best there is – and he travels town-to-town as a hustler, betting on games for money (the opening game with a couple of oblivious victims shows precisely how he does this, and it’s mesmerizing). But at a tournament he meets Minnesota Fats, a pool legend, and Eddie is bound and determined to beat the man. The cigarettes burn, the whiskey flows, and after hours and hours of marathon playing, Eddie admits defeat, at a loss of $12,000. Penniless and demoralized, he wanders the city alone, and finds another lost soul in the form of Sarah (Piper Laurie), a doe-eyed, plain but pretty young woman – and an alcoholic. And so their relationship – comprised mainly of drinking and lovemaking (which she pathetically calls a “contract of depravity”) – begins.

As their cohabitation continues, Sarah’s love for Eddie grows, but it’s frustratingly unrequited. Things aren’t helped much by the arrival of Bert Gordon, a manager who sees potential in Eddie, but he knows the wunderkind’s desperation, not to mention debilitating character flaws, so he extracts a crippling 75% from all winnings. Bert spots a potential windfall from a heavy-betting Southerner, and Sarah coaxes Eddie into taking her with him to Kentucky, despite her profound lovesickness. The game is all money – no joy – and when Eddie returns to the hotel room, he discovers Sarah’s suicide, spurred by her guilt over sleeping with Bert. Conditions are not ideal for a return match with Fats, but it happens, and this time Eddie is ready, beating the master handily and confidently. But his real victory turns out to be unrelated to pool: standing up to Bert and refusing to hand over his cut, effectively retiring from professional hustling completely.

I mentioned before the synopsis that The Hustler trod new ground in the realm of mature content, and that must indeed have been a salient element upon its release back in 1961. For the first time, at least in this collection, it’s clear that two adults have had premarital sex. (Beforehand, the studio made sure that at the end of a date or dinner, the man or woman drove home). It’s nonchalant and unromanticized too, more an act of wastrels longing for each other’s carnality to escape a cold world. For me, this doomed union, a romance that never would be, or could be, is the best part of the film, reminding me a bit of Cassavette’s later work (Faces, in particular). (Unusual, too, for a sports movie, a genre where the love story is always the weakest part, and the girl is usually confined to the cheering section, or the role which has to get the protagonist to “look inside himself” if he has any chance at victory.) But The Hustler is no ordinary sorts movie, and one could even make the case that the love story is paramount with the pool story secondary in importance.

And it’s impossible to praise the love story without mentioning Piper Laurie’s performance. She is nothing less than phenomenal. She was nominated for Best Actress that year; she should’ve won. She depicts a psychologically fragile yet emotionally hungry woman with such precision, such profundity, that I knew it could only come fro a stage-trained actress – another hallmark of the Brando-begun movement that paved the way for the new guard. It’s a performance that reminded me of Shirley MacLaine’s similarly-wounded, suicidal character in the previous year’s The Apartment. Although each have different outcomes, they are both women you just want to reach into the screen and save from the outside world – to nurture and love. And it’s also what makes Newman’s guilt-ridden breakdown in the final scene so poignant. He wishes he could’ve saved her with his love. But he couldn’t.

I’d also like to applaud the film’s screenplay. Again, it’s probably the first film in the Fox collection that doesn’t feel dated, and part of that relates to the writing. This is nt to say that a film like Gentleman’s Agreement wasn’t well-written, but The Hustler’s lines crackle with immediacy. They’re not overly literary, or overly theatrical. They approximate the speech of real life, while at the same time conveying the messages and meanings necessary for quality art. The picnic scene is the perfect example; Eddie and Sarah seem to have things together (he had just gotten his thumbs broken) and engage in a romantic, outdoor interlude. But she says, “I love you,” and he responds, “Do you need the words?” “I do,” she whispers, “and if you say them, I’ll never let you take them back.” And then dead silence.

That’s sublime writing. And, truth be told, it’s even underrated. The Hustler’s screenplay isn’t up there with the pantheon of Citizen Kane, All About Eve, Chinatown or The Godfather. But it should be.

Some bits and pieces: George C, Scott, in an early role, perfectly straddles the line between mentor and bully, and the “Great One,” Jackie Gleason, is excellent in the way he underplays his role. I’ll never forget their first match, and the way he just stares at an alcohol-addled Newman, realizing the upstart’s heavy insecurities but not judging. That look alone speaks volumes about his character, and it reveals the full breadth of Gleason’s histrionic intelligence.

Guess I’ve said enough. Sorry I never really saw this brilliant film earlier. And if you’ve already seen it, see it again. It will be better than you remembered it.

Rating:  ****

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)


I’m not all surprised that Fox rounded out the first part of its 75th Anniversary set with this classic from 1959 – a notorious commercial flop but widely hailed by critics and certainly now considered a landmark film, an immortal work that lives up to the powerful legacy of its source material. The Diary of Anne Frank is indeed a film for the ages.

But yet, I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and, gasp – dare I say it – I maybe I hadn’t really seen the whole thing at all. Sure, I read and acted out the play in 8th grade, as part of a special Holocaust unit (and back in ’84 that was a very novel concept), but I never really got into it. I revered it, I respected it, I honored it.. and then I put it up on the shelf where other “special” things were kept.

But now, seeing the movie, I can appreciate it now as a living, breathing, vital piece of both history and art. Director George Stevens honors the play upon which his movie is based by doing little with it literarily. The dialogue is mostly intact, and he resists the urge to “open it up,” realizing that to do so would ruin the essential claustrophobia that is needed to impart the Frank family’s feeling of frustration and fear, and also love and solidarity. In a way, the film plays as a microcosm of an entire family’s life, compressed in time to two years, as well as a microcosm of their friends and neighbors, given the addition of the Van Daams and Mr. Dussel. As such, at times, this is an enjoyable film, far more about life than the death for which the Holocaust is associated. But perhaps, that is why the film is so much about life.

We all know the story. Otto Frank, realizing the Nazis are moving beyond persecution and deporting Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, arranges to have his family – himself, his wife and two daughters Margot and Anne – move in to an annex upstairs of a business run by former associates Mr. Kraler and Miep. Also staying with them are Mr. and Mrs. Van Daam, and their son, Peter (and his cat), and then later, a dentist named Mr. Dussel. Kraler promises to provide food for them via his ration tickets, but the new (and cramped) habitation proves to be most difficult for all. Socially active Anne feels it worst, until her dad bestows upon her a most welcome ift: a diary, within which she can scribe her most innermost secrets and thoughts about this new and often cruel world she now finds herself in.

Throughout two long years, we discover much about the Frank family. Anne is far closer to her father, able to confide in him thoughts she’d be loathe to share with her aloof mom, and sister Margot also seems to be disconnected. Anne is, of course, interested in Peter, given her hormonal changes, and she even sets up a “date” with him, once she is able to break the ice with a boy completely unfamiliar with the opposite sex. Hanukah is celebrated, and Anne turns out to be the only one with a gift for everyone, and as each season rolls around, Anne is able to appreciate the natural beauty outside through a sky window.

With a radio, everyone an hear the latest war developments; they excite over news of the D-Day landing, but locally, things do not look so good when a burglar attempts to rob a downstairs safe, and clearly detects their presence upstairs after someone trips and makes some telltale noise. Things come to a head when Mr Van Daan is caught stealing food, and Mrs. Frank orders his eviction, but outside forces grow more threatening, revealing the pettiness of their squabbles. Ultimately, Nazis break into the building, ad into their hiding place. It is revealed, through return flashback, that the thief had informed on them. Otto survived the camps, his family did not, but he now has retrieved his daughter’s precious diary. His response after reading each and every achingly inspiring word: “She puts me to shame."

So, a few thoughts after my revisitation of this treasured work. First, I’m surprised at already how many WWII-based films we’ve gotten so far. Starting with Twelve O’Clock High and moving up to South Pacific and now this, the war was clearly a major influence on films of this era, either directly or tangentially – and we’ve certainly not seen the last of it. Of course, Diary is unique in that it focuses on the Holocaust, perhaps the first to have done so, and it likely signaled a greater awareness of the horror – not simply an act of war but a separate, horrific event that requires study in its own right.

And, artistically, it’s quite amazing. Director George Stevens, who had a brief but spectacular run primarily in the 50s, closes out the decade with a film that holds up remarkably well in the modern hyperkinetic media world of mass, instant consumption. Credit that to his skill not just with director actors and dialogue but also with the innate instinct of where to place his camera for maximum effect, no easy task when dealing with essentially only one room. He knows the value of a good, solid closeup, and he knows when to peel saway to outside action to alleviate our own tedium. Ironically, we want to be back inside, though, and that’s just where he takes us. At nearly three hours, Diary could easily have been an unendurable vitamin – food for you, but…. Instead, it’s captivating from beginning to end, emotionally, spiritually, thematically, dramatically…

And then there’s the stark but poetic B&W photography, How else could one capture such a sobering event? In 1959, it wasn’t uncommon (not until the mid-60s did it disappear complexly) but still it must’ve been a tough sell for Fox, the studio that brought full-color Cinemascope to the masses and was trying to compete with TV, which was all B&W. (And it’s three hour TRT didn’t help either.) But in the end, folks didn’t exactly line up for it, and Stevens had to revert back to an epic – 1965’s  The Greatest Story Ever Told, which would wind up being his final film.

Perhaps just one small quibble (if you’ll allow): the all-too dramatically obvious choice to actualize Anne and Peter’s love with a kiss, to swelling orchestral strains, just at the moment Nazis barge into their building. This moment is pure Hollywood: the archetypal moments when two lovebirds realize their mutual fate and decide to avow their love for each other with their first real smooch. Pure Hollywood, sure, but this picture aims to be more serious than that, and such a crescendo feels entirely wrongheaded.

But that’s really it. And if I could go back in time, I’d tell my 8th grade teacher how much I love this play, having seen the movie, and how wrong I was for reading my part with all the interest and fervor of a 411 operator.

Fox keeping up its reputation for churning out movies with conscience, even if they weren’t always huge hits. Bravo, Daryl – ya done good, buddy. Can’t wait to see what’s next. 

Rating:  ****

Friday, November 25, 2016

South Pacific (1958)


Fox’s ace up its sleeve in the 50s was their license to adapt Rodgers and Hammerstein’s oeuvre to the big screen – previous examples Oklahoma! and The King and I (also in this collection) were smash hits, so it was a no-brainer to launch South Pacific accordingly, and they did so for the Spring of 1958. The film was big, sure, but even bigger was the film’s soundtrack, which stayed at the top of Billboard’s album chart for a then-record 31 weeks. Critics genuflected too, although that year’s Best Picture went to the better-reviewed Gigi.

And me? I’ve never been completely familiar wit the show, despite my great love and admiration for anything R&H. My first indirect exposure came at the ripe old age of 13, when I played Lil’ Jake at a local theater’s presentation of Annie Get Your Gun, and all I heard about durug rehearsals was how high the bar was set by the previous year’s offering – South Pacific. It was hammered into our skulls, by some as a motivating tactic, by others who loved the show and wished a better choice were made than the admittedly stale Annie Get Your Gun. Most of the folk in the latter category were middle-aged men, and, as I’ve later deduced, either WWII veterans or men in their prime during that era, helping to account for their affinity. It could also very well account for the huge popularity of the film – one of the first lightweight films about the war, despite a lengthy battle sequence in the final act.

Set just before the tide turned for the Americans in the PTO during WWII, South Pacific introduces us to the Naval personal currently occupying a small Polynesian island. There’s Luther (Ray Walston), a salty ensign bemoaning the lack of dames at their post, yearning wistfully to steal sway to the idyllic isle “Bali Ha’i,” at the suggestion of zaftig native Bloody Mary. There’s newly-arrived lieutenant Joseph Cable (John Kerr) of the Marines, assigned to the island to undertake a special mission. And then there’s nurse Nellie (Mitzi Gaynor), who’s recently been spending a lotta time at he estate of Emile de Becque, a wealthy planter of whom very little is know, aside from the fact that he left his native France in an awful hurry.

Details emerge about Cable’s big mission – a covert attack on Japanese boats near a strategically located island. It’s risky, though, and the likelihood of success could be elevated were it to involve de Becque, who kniws the area inside-out. When approached, however, he declines to participate, citing his general distrust these days toward the outside world, particularly bullies, such as the type he was force to murder back in Frace, hence his quick departure. Oh, and yes, there’s his love for nurse Nellie, which seems to be going back and forth like a seesaw – the latest breakup seems to be caused by the Frenchman’s admission of his recent widowhood, and two half-Asian children from the ill-fated marriage.

But now, with his love love in shambles, de Becque goes along. Lt. Cable’s a bit down in the mouth recently too; after a spur-of-the-moment romp in Bali Ha’i, he falls in love with a beautiful island girl, who just happens to be Bloody’s daughter, but he stops just short of marriage, leaving the jilted girl to exchange vows with an older man. De Becque and Cable embark on the perilous mission with great success, and word among the wounded is highly complimentary – word that is pickd p by the ear-pricking Nellie, who now preys intently for her beau to stay alive so she can accept his marriage offer. He does (Cable doesn’t) and she does, and they embrace once again, just in time for one last song.

And sing they do, but that’s a good thing, because the music, along with the gorgeous locales, is the best part of South Pacific. (Lush fitfully describes both elements.) I was already familiar with most of the songs, including “Bali Hai,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Happy Talk” and “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy,” but hearing them in contexts adds a greater level of appreciation. Now I can understand the intense, plaintive strains of “Some Enchanted Evening,” particularly as they echo to a heartsick Mitzi Gaynor at the end of Act I. (Yes, the intermission is entirely retained in this edition, entr’acte and all)

And the other surprisingly effective element? Mitzi Gaynor – no question. In addition to her triple-threat talent of acting/dancing/singing (required of all entertainers back then, regardless of medium), she’s engaging on so many levels. She’s both sprite-like and sexy (especially I the hair-washing number), and can run the gamut from serious melodrama to lighthearted fancy. And all the while ya just wanna take her home with you, and remind her that everything will be okay, if if you don’t land that French guy (whom I kinda thought was a drip anyway). Definition of star power, right there in a nutshell.

Flaws? Certainly a few, the most notorious being he use of those color filters, which critics absolutely hated back then. Now, they’re not so bad, given our gradual acceptance of visual manipulations in film, and besides they’re pretty much limited to the film’s first half. But to me, far worse than that is a final battle sequence involving that mission – obviously not in the Broadway version – that was probably thrown in to appeal to male audiences. It was like they were saying, “Here’s your reward, gus, for sitting through all those musical numbers – a good ol’, red-blooded American war scene!” Didn’t need it, and it definitely slowed things down.

So plot-wise, we’re not left with a lot, but it is a musical after all, and at 2 hours, 37 minutes, you get tons of it, and it’s all spaced pretty evenly across. Pay heed also to some good comic relief by one of my favorite character actors, Ray Walston, and soak up the beautiful cinematography, the first in this collection to be presented in Todd-AO (the competitor to Cinemascope). Two other collection firsts: the first opening credits over moving picture (as opposed to title cards), and the first actual closing credits (as opposed to just “The End”), owing to the need to list the entire cast. 

Beautiful, affectionately made, and a product of the sort of talent rarely seen anymore. Go watch, and have a Mai Tai at Bali Ha’i for me. 

Rating:  ****

Monday, November 21, 2016

An Affair To Remember (1957)


Back in 1993, the sleeper hit of the summer was Sleepless in Seattle, a fantastic rom com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who would go on to become America’s Sweethearts of the 90s. It was a throwback to the grand old weepers of a generation hence, like An Affair to Remember, and to drive the point home, it even featured references and film clips to that old chestnut. I’d seen parts of it, thought it completely boring and dated, and scoffed at the revitalization the film enjoyed as a result of its inclusion in Sleepless.

Now, having seen it years later for its being a part of the Fox Film Collection, I now have to eat crow. An Affair To Remember is a splendid work, an archetype of its genre, and, for its first hour at least, it’s an almost perfect example of the sort of product Hollywood’s Golden Age was best known for: a witty, tightly wound script, served magnificently by a lush score and set, and the greatest star power the industry has ever known. When they say they don’t make them like this anymore, I have to sigh. It’s no longer a trite, pithy expression – it’s all too true. Too sadly, profoundly true.

Cary Grant is Nickie Ferrante, an Italian, womanizing playboy about to marry an American heiress and thus receive a huge fortune, but on the boat over he meets Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), a singer, and immediately they hit it off. The gossip-mongering media, of course, has a field day (busybodies were a common trope in the 50s), but the two lovebirds don’t care – they become so smitten that they make a mutual pact to meet at the top of the Empire State Building six months later to marry – enough time to break off their respective engagements, and allow a resultingly penniless Nickie to forge a living.

Nickie turns to painting, his great passion, to make ends meet, while Terry’s eyes tell her fiancé all he needs to know, and he accepts their breakup. But six months later, at the moment of the lovebirds’ long-awaited reunion, Terry gets hit by a car, and is rendered incapacitated, leaving Nickie to wait all night long for his absentee beloved. She refuses to make contact with him until she can walk, occupying herself with a new job as a children’s music teacher. But when they accidentally meet at her apartment, a still confused Nickie guilts her for her rebuff, until he notices her wheelchair. The two repledge their solemn, mutual love, she vowing to walk again as long as he will be by her side. 

An Affair to Remember certainly passes the ultimate romance’s litmus test: do you want to see the two leads end up together? It passes it with flying colors – you want to see Grant and Kerr together so desperately, that if they don’t, you’re inclined to dispel the notion of love once and for all, as if it were a folly as insignificant as Santa Claus. (Nah, strike that. I just saw Miracle on 34th Street.) Ok, perhaps I’m overdramatizing, but I really was worked by the film, hook line and sinker. At least for the film’s first half – the boat half, a setting that always seems to facilitate romance (see a previous Fox entry, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or any given episode of The Love Boat, one of my favorite 70s shows). And I love the way the chemistry is so relaxed, so casual – these characters are adults, spouting adult dialogue, not like today’s adults, who strain for as many clever, quippy, reference-laden lines they can muster, all in a neurotic frenzy of insecurity, immaturity and overall insufferability.

But, as I alluded to earlier, there’s a problem. After the inevitable separation, and the succeeding trial term, I was getting all set for the grand finale: the reunion at the top of the Empire. They’ve paid their dues, and they’re all set for the Famous Final Scene, closed-lips smooch and all, and then the orchestra swell and end title card.

But then I looked at my DVD time counter. There was still thirty-three minutes left to go.

And that’s when Deborah Kerr gets out of her taxi and gets hit by a car.

Oh, snap!

This, of course, was a plot development symptomatic of those 50s tearjerkers, particularly of the Douglas Sirk ilk: just when you think all is right and well in Romanceville, some eleventh-hour impediment arises to either delay, frustrate or completely obstruct the consummation we assumed would occur. But damnit, why did it have to invade this film, with dapper Grant and elegant Kerr, who were all set to live the rest of their lives in each other’s arms?

Even worse, the delay period after the tragic accident is easily the worst part of the film. We have to suffer through not one but two unbearable children’s musical numbers (she’s now a teacher, remember), and all the while we want her, desperately, to just tell Nickie that’s SHE CAN’T WALK but will GET BETTER and WHY DON’T THEY JUST GET MARRIED IN THE MEANTIME?

Because then they won’t have that achy, unrequited feeling. You know how I said I was manipulated during the first half on the film but didn’t mind? Well, now I’m manipulated in the second half and I do mind.

Yeah, I suppose I should be happy that at least they’re together in the end, under different circumstances, but why couldn’t it have been the way I expected. Perhaps the Rolling Stones were right – “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

But I could definitely have done without the kids singing.

Overall, a minor demerit doesn’t detract too much from a rating of: 

                       Rating:  ***1/2

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Love Me Tender (1956)


Elvis Presley did one film for Fox before moving on to other studios, notably Paramount, where he signed a contract and starred in most of his movies. It was his debut – 1956’s Love Me Tender – and it was an auspicious beginning. A commercial and critical success, it eschewed all notions that the King of Rock ‘N Roll was a one-trick pony. The dude could sing, sure, but he could act? The answer – a resounding “yes.”

And in a supporting role, no less, although it is easily the emotionally meatiest in the film. And even more surprising (to me, at least): a Civil War-era Western! That’s right, the greasy-haired, pelvis-shaking 50s icon actually does what he does best in a milieu nearly a hundred years outside his comfort zone. But, despite a couple of up-tempo numbers, it’s not as anachronistic as you think. After all, the title song, “Love Me Tender,” was adapted from a Civil War ballad. But when I stared to watch, with no Elvis for the first twenty minutes and a plot about Confederate soldiers stealing payroll money, I thought I had rented the wrong film.

The soldiers are comprised mainly of the three Reno brothers; they rob a train’s cash load for the Confederate cause, but are completely unaware that the war had just ended. Once they get the news, and after some moral soul-searching, they agree to split up the money evenly. The bros return home to the farmstead where the eldest, Vance (whom everyone thought dead), realizes his sweetheart, Cathy, had just married the youngest, Clint. Awkward!

The tensions continue and Vance realizes he must leave, lest the others catch on to his still strong feelings for Cathy. But the Yanks are hot on their trail and decide to bring the boys in for trial, while sealing off the farm so no money can leave the premises. Vance artfully, and honestly, arranges to return the money, but his ex-cohorts break the brothers free from captivity, and soon grow to doubt Vince’s honest intentions. Even worse, they coerce Clint into believing he’s gonna steal away Cathy, and it all comes to head in a shootout, where Clint gullibly shoots and wounds Vince, instantly regrets it, and is in turn shot and killed by the incoming Yanks. Mother Reno is comforted by Vince, who is now ostensibly allowed to marry Cathy.

All right, an all-too convenient resolution for Vince, but of course, he is the film’s lead. It’s really Presley who takes the greater chance here, playing an unlikeable character in the film’s beginning, when he steals away the hero’s true love, and in the final third, when he avariciously hunts down big brother. Of course, it’s all redeemed in his final act of self-sacrifice, but still, it’s certainly not the easy way out. And the Pelvis handles such a balancing act with great aplomb, being careful not to appear either too saintly or too monstrous. And he even works in four songs to boot!

Is this a great film? No, but it’s certainly a good one. Even if its dialogue is not as crisp as it could be, and its acting, despite Presley’s nuances, suffers from the era’s trademark over-theatrics, the story is pretty solid. After all, they are borrowing from some of the greatest literary archetypes of all time: East of Eden, Othello, The Great Train Robbery… I found myself quite involved in this melodrama, and quite frankly had no idea how it was going to wind up. Hey, and let’s credit some darn fine B&W cinematography while we’re at it, looking good in yet another Cinemascope presentation. (Clearly Fox’s trademark)

Oh, and my starlet lusting for the day – Debra Paget, who plays Cathy. Quite the looker, I gotta say, and Elvis himself agreed: he proposed to her, but she had already given her heart to… Howard Hughes (WTF?). But so far in this collection no one could sport a three-buttoned open blouse like she. Her other big hit: a little film called The Ten Commandments. Maybe we’ll see her in that when I do the Paramount collection.

On balance, fun, riveting, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Aw, hell, you’ll watch.

                               Rating:  ***

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The King and I (1956)


So here we go: The King and I. God, where do I even begin?

Well, I guess a good place to start would be around 32 years ago – the fall of 1985. I had just been granted parole from an all-boys preparatory high school, rigidly focused on athletics and academics, and was about to begin my sophomore year at Sacred Heart, a co-ed high school more arts and drama-driven. The director of that year’s school musical was a good friend of mine, and he had saved me a part. The part – Prince Chululongkorn, and the musical – The King and I. 

It was my third Rodgers and Hammerstein show, after having done Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music at a local community theater, and in many ways was the most challenging. Everyone except Anna and Louis had to wear that skin-bronzing makeup, and don some pretty elaborate costumes, stitched together with all the time-consuming labor our art department could manage (and then some). And let’s not mention the scenery and set design, the dancing, the Siamese accents (some were better than others) and some pretty hefty acting chores, heaped primarily on the shoulders of the two leads. And ours were pretty damned good.

But we had a pretty great time. And now, looking back on my experience after viewing the film version (which I hadn’t seen since that time), I can now declare a greater appreciation for the work. Sure, I loved the music, liked the story, but now I have an increased awareness of its themes – which now, for better or worse, are timelier than ever. And knowing more about history than I did during my callow teen years has enabled me to view the story more contextually, and thus more profoundly. In short, it’s a great film, if only for the reason that a great film evolves, and changes, just as its audience does.

Set in 1862, The King and I loosely adapts the true story of Englishwoman Anna Leonowens, who arrives at Siam to teach the children of the country’s king (Yul Brynner), a leader who realizes the need for greater civility in an era of ever-increasing Westernization. From the very start the relation is dicey: Anna resents her new boss’s oppression of women, tolerance of slavery, and failure to live up to his promise of providing her a suitable residence for her, while he is resistant to her lack of obedience and traditional respect for his title. Nevertheless, he is pleased with her affinity for the children, and realizes he needs her help now more than ever.

But elements arise to threaten the delicate balance of their already strained union. A “gift” from Burma arrives in the form of a new wife for the king, a scared young girl named Tuptim, torn from the arms of the man she loves, her escort to this new land. Kralahome, the king’s right hand man, is skeptical of Anna’s presence, fearing her influence will split and confuse the monarch with needless new ideas. Only Lady Thiang, the king’s head wife, seems to be the sole source of succor, helping Anna by getting her to understand that the king does indeed need her help, but is limited by his title in demonstrating it

Things come to a head at the arrival of the ambassador from Britain, who wants to determine the king’s level of barbarity in deciding whether or not to take over his country as a protectorate. Things go well, despite Tuptim’s Hamlet-esque presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a protest against the king’s enslavement of her, as well as a romantic overture by the ambassador’s escort and Anna’s old flame, Sir Edward. But the new world clashing with the old gets to be too much for the king, and his frustratingly platonic affections for Anna don’t help much either. He dies, but is pleased by Anna’s last-minute change of mind to stay in Siam as a teacher, and the notion that his country will now be in good hands under his open-mined, inquisitive successor, Prince Chululongkorn. 

The King and I, despite lacking traditional romantic elements, fits the Rodgers and Hammerstein formula almost perfectly – a man and a woman, coming from two totally different worlds, meet, fight, sing and fall in love. But ultimately, those worlds come back to threaten their idyllic romance, which either dissolves or is strengthened by the trial. Both Brynner and Ker are positively spellbinding in their role, and I was surprised to remember just how much talking is going on here. Sure, there are musical numbers aplenty, but they’re far less frequent than scenes of the two stats simply verbalizing. That, too, is a R&H hallmark, and perhaps that’s why their shows are so immortal.

Also immortal – the themes, particularly as the necessity for globalization is more pressing than ever before. With NATO, SEATO, the UN, and trade orgs like NAFTA and TPP, alliances are a way of life, and any nation opting for an isolationist policy is generally classified as backward. And the king’s oppression of women? Look no further than the current GOP candidate, or even he GOP mantra for that matter. Sex slavery and polygamy is alive and well in much of the world, and so is nativism here in America. So the king, looking downright primal in 1862, might just fit in pretty well now in 2016.

I daresay the only element that might date the picture just a bit is its depiction of Asians (back then: Orientals). You can hardly fault the film for that; in he 50s, Eastern racial stereotypes was the norm in the media, and actually King was far more progressive than others of its kind. Still, it’s hard to imagine a Hispanic actress like Rita Moreno getting cast as an Asian nowadays (although between her youth and makeup, she’s hardly recognizable), and even a Swiss/German/Russian like Brynner might have a hard time getting cast in what would become his signature role.

But those are quibbles – this is a musical masterpiece. A film for the ages, and for all ages (let’s not let the American movie musical fade into obscurity). If you haven’t already, see it. It truly is “Something Wonderful.” 

                         Rating:  **** 

P.S: Oh, and BTW, this film is the first in the collection to feature the now always-used extended Fox fanfare. At the time, they needed it to be longer to cover the “Filmed in CinemaScope” notification.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

So the Fox Collection decided to add this title when they already have a Marilyn Monroe selection, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and you probably can’t help but wonder why (like me). Well, it has some degree of artistic merit, being a talky comedy directed by none other than Billy Wilder. And the film’s title added a commonly used phrase to the world of psychology, not to mention marriage counseling. And then there’s the matter of a brief scene, occurring about ¾ of the way through, in which Monroe steps over a subway grate and lets the hot air billow up her white dress as she futilely tries to hold it down. Oh, right… that. The defense rests.

Actually, that scene isn’t at all the way we remember it (it’s not shot wide, so that full, iconic image isn’t really in the film), and, despite a few scenes at an office and some outside fantasy sequences, it’s really just  a filmed play, set almost entirely inside the NY apartment of Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). Not necessarily a bad thing, though; the play was written by George Axelrod and is chock full of witty banter, running one-liners, and some surprisingly poignant observations about the male libido and the challenges of a monogamous relationship.

But Richard is anything but the stereotypical, libidinous male. In fact, he’s a mess of insecurities, exacerbated by a wildly active imagination that borders on extreme paranoia. When his wife and son lave NYC for the summer to go to camp, he considers sowing a few wild oats – after all, summer is a long time. But then, his conscience takes over, and he trades in his martinis and cigarettes for visits to the vegetarian restaurant and 9:30 bedtimes.

All that changes when he lays eyes on the “Girl” upstairs, a temp tenant who couldn’t be nicer – and that’s the problem. When she accidentally knocks a tomato plant onto his porch, he uses the happy accident as an entre for conversation, a drink and perhaps, something else? The night wears on, with lots of talking and soul-bearing, until Richard propositions her on a piano bench. She innocently brushes it off, but he is wracked with guilt, even confessing his near-sin to a psychiatrist. But he imagines the Mrs, doing precisely he same thing up in Maine, and so he invites the Girl out to the movies – more guilt, more paranoia. By now he is so torn apart that he spends the night taping up a paddle to his son, practically spilling out all his secrets to his wife’s imagined lover, and finally confiding to the Girl that he loves his betrothed wholly and completely, and will get on the next bus north to be with her immediately.

Of course, it was a no-brainer to cast Monroe in the key part of “The Girl,” continuing her run of dumb-blonde roles that would continue for the duration of her career. But as good as she is, Itch is really Richard’s story – at times it’s practically a one-man show – as we listen to his thoughts, memories and interior monologues, and laugh in recognition of his manic neuroses. Tom Ewell reprises his role from the Broadway run, and he is pitch perfect. As a non-movie star he brings credibility to the role; his everyman looks and demeanor function as a fitting entry point for the (male) audience, but he still manages to score empathy and compassion just as effectively as any seasoned star.

And then there’s director Billy Wilder, who surely deserves credit for keeping the proceedings light and bouncy, despite the potentially dark topic matter. But the director was not entirely satisfied with the angle. As you figured out from the synopsis, Richard does not have an affair, a necessary outcome given the Hays Code constraints which were in full effect in 1955. Wilder, in a 70s interview, stated that such censorship turned the film “superficial,” essentially emasculating and sapping it of any potential import.

I’m not so sure. Sure, actually boinked Bo Derek in 10, but that film was more of a serio-comedy. Generally speaking, successfully infidelity tends to be disastrous for light fare, as it was for The Woman In Red and Blame It On Rio. But the bumbling attempts at it tend to be far funnier, as it was in one of my favorite Neil Simon films, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, a film that actually improves upon Itch’s idea simply by multiplying it threefold, thereby reducing the claustrophobia just a bit.

Mentioning Simon, I can discern how much of this must have been a heavy influence on the playwright’s early works. Itch makes great use of the recurring comedic motif (“Hair was longer then,” “Wish I was dead”), which would become a Wilder staple, particularly in The Apartment, and it explores the fundamental differences in the relationship needs between men and women, something Simon does, can only do, through comedy. Side splitting, raucous comedy.

On balance, entertaining and often thoughtful. Come for Marilyn, stay for Ewell. And laugh regardless.

                       Rating:  ***1/2


[Oh, and there are also a few funny inside jokes, such as Mrs. Sherman’s claim that her husband dreams in Cinemascope (what the film was shot in), a scene which parodies the beach lovemaking in From Here to Eternity (probably the first), and the line that the Girl in the shower looks like Marilyn Monroe. Oh, no they didn’t!]

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Robe (1953)


I knew only two things about The Robe before I saw it this week, for this blog. One: it was the first film released in the brand-spanking-new Cinemascope format, in which the aspect ration is 1 to 2:35 instead of the then-standard 1 to 1:33. Film had been taking a commercial drubbing from the nascently popular medium known as television, and so film producers had to come up with something that would make it worth audiences’ while to get out of the house. And boy, is it widescreen; screens would later normalize to the more modest 1 to 1:85 ratio, but at the time this must’ve seemed like a panorama. Of course, that was entirely the intention.

And the other thing: it’s a historical epic. Or more specifically, a historical-Biblical epic from the 50s. And to me, when I was growing up, that meant only one thing – booooring. Terror visions of having to sit and watch all four hours of The Ten Commandments, or sitting helplessly by as Mom and Dad commandeered the set for a marathon viewing of Ben Hur. Not my cup of tea, never was.

But the great surprise and delight of watching The Robe for the first time is that I quite rather enjoyed it. This is nothing if not an entertaining film, actually riveting at etimes, with a fine, endearing celebration of the mantra of Christianity, affecting even if you’re not particularly religious, like me. This transcends the stereotypical “costume drama” (even though they are eye-cachingly resplendent) to become a well structured, clearly told story, as satisfying as any contemporary saga. And seeing some of these great actors, like Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, early in their respective careers is just icing on the cake.

The Robe introduces us to the fictional character of Marcellus Gallio (Burton), as he interacts with the clearly real figures of the Roman Empire, circa 37 A.D.  A tribune, and son of an esteemed senator, he manages to woo the heart of his childhood sweetheart, Diana (Simmons), at about the same time he incites the ire of emperor-apparent Caligula by winning a Greek slave named Demitrius at an auction. His penalty: to work the beat in Palestine, where some dude named Jesus is stirring things up and causing a bit of a commotion.

In Jerusalem, he is assigned the thankless task of crucifying the savior, a job he’s more than a bit apprehensive about, made worse by Demitrius’s anger at him for accepting it. Well, you know how it goes, and after the crosses are nailed, Marcellus wins the sacred robe of Jesus at a poker game. Only problem is, it somehow possesses him, causing him great stress and strife all the way back to Rome (his slave has already run away with the robe, disgusted by his master’s actions). Emperor Tiberius calls upon him for a report, but he is so ill he can barely manage an explanation. The court physician concludes that the robe must have bewitched him, and so Tiberius orders the tribune to return to the Holy Land, burn the robe, and possibly stymie this troublesome new movement, which he considers a threat to the empire.

But when Marcellus interacts with the new Christians he develops an appreciation for their tenets – an ideology based on giving, caring and nonviolence. When he finally confront Demetrius and the robe, the slave tells him that the garment merely represents his crisis of conscience – if he were to confront that truth, and accept that Jesus has already forgiven him, he may continue on without compunction. Marcellus des so, and follows Demetrius and the fisherman Peter, Jesus’ former apostle, in travelling throughout Rome to spread the word.

But Caligula, now emperor, will have none of it. He orders the arrest of the rogue tribune, torturing Demitrius to get information to this end. Diana has gotten back in touch with her old love, but she is so in love that she will stand by him no matter what, and when he is captured, that turns out to be his execution. As they both march off to death, they are elated that their new marriage will continue in the kingdom of heaven.

Hopefully, I haven’t put you to sleep wit that not exactly-brief synopsis, but I got so involved in the story that I’d be loathe to leave any detail out. I suppose I’ll start by praising the ingenious way it tells the story of Jesus obliquely, through a fictional character, in much the same way later great works such as Amadeus, Ragtime and Little Big Man did. We never actually see Jesus, which is a good thing – his visage would have necessarily shifted the focus, and made anything which happens after his death an afterthought. But his message, and core ideology, is front and center in the film’s theme as it is espoused by Marcellus, and the latter’s change is what hammers that theme home so well. His epiphany, in fact, reminded me of that by the Vincent Price character in The Song of Bernadette, another Fox epic that examined Christianity through character change.

Thinking about it more, I think I responded better to this oblique view of Jesus than I would’ve a direct one. George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, for example, is a stunning epic, but damned if it isn’t a thundering tirade too. The Robe manages to sneak in its true agenda under the slight guise of Roman history, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work. I might even recommend this as good Easter viewing over the more traditional fare, including the perennially dubious choice of The Ten Commandments, a perfect choice…. for Passover!

And of course, one can’t help but ponder over the current state of Christianity, as it seems to now represent irrational zealotry and rigidity. But back then, in the years before, during and after its founding, it seemed to be so essentially good, espousing the virtues of peace, charity, and justice. (Wow, what concepts!) Jesus was a cool dude, by all accounts (including this one), and it really does seem to bear up the classic Gandhi quote – “I’d like to be a Christian, but I never met one who resembled Christ.”

As far as the other particulars – phenomenal music score by Alfred Newman, and wondrous performances, as I mentioned, by Burton and the luminescent Jean Simmons (one of my al-time faves). And Jay Robinson is perfectly unctuous as the mad ruler Caligula, having the best, crazily demonic scenes in the film’s final act.

So don’t let the moniker of “historical epic” deter you, like it did me for all these years. The Robe is grandly entertaining and powerfully poignant, even if you have to watch it on the small screen.

                            Rating:  ****

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Marilyn Monroe was easily 20th Century Fox’s biggest female star in the 50s, and so it was a no-brainer to include one of her films in this collection. Their selection is 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and it’s a good choice if only for the fact that it represents a magical time in Monroe’s career. She had just become a headliner thanks to the overwhelming success of Niagra, and she had perfected her trademark role as the “dumb” blonde with a childlike innocence masked by enormous sex appeal. And it was still a few years before her troubles began – when she turned to method acting and associated herself with more serious persuasions, and the “treadmill,” immortalized in Elton John’s classic song, pulled her in a zillion different directions, one of them toward her tragic death in 1962.

I had never been the biggest Monroe fan in the world, but watching her performance here has allowed me an opportunity for reassessment. Beyond the glitz, the glimmer, and the show stopping numbers lies a woman who commands an instant likeability – crucial for any Hollywood star then or now. I can’t speak for women, but I can see why men flocked to her films, which mostly dealt with relationships and musical numbers and other traditionally female interests: the “Marilyn” persona is one of great beauty but also great frailty, insecurity. We not only want to be with her in the Biblical sense but also to nurture and care for her, and remind her that guys aren’t all bad. We want to see her with the right man in the end; when she is, it’s a beatific romp (Blondes); when she isn’t, it’s a soul-crushing tragedy (Bus Stop).

Of course, at the time, it was her face and body that studios and financers credited for her success, and the perceived image of Monroe typified the 1950’s return to the hot, docile blonde, and a rejection of the more sensible, straight-thinking actresses of the 40s, like Kate Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. And so she was vilified by feminists, who saw her as fodder for the emerging Playboy attitude toward women. Only after the dust had settled did feminists like Joyce Carole Oates acknowledge Monroe’s significance as a feminist icon, and her image was redeemed in the eyes of most cultural historians.

For all these reasons, Monroe should be revisited, if even in a mediocre vehicle like Gentlemen. Here, she plays Lorelei Lee, a woman engaged to marry a nebbish millionaire, to the dismay of his disapproving dad. Jane Russell is Dorothy Shaw, Lee’s show-biz partner, and together they embark on a sea cruise to Paris. The gals are the best of friends despite fundamental splits in their approach to man-catching: Lee adores wealthy, fawning over diamonds in particular, while Shaw prefers men of the more modest, down-to-earth persuasion. But they both have each other’s back, particularly when it is revealed that Shaw’s love interest is a P.I. hired by Lee’s future father-in-law to get some dirt on the girl and break up the engagement. All’s well that ends well in Paris, when both blonde and brunette exchange vows after a madcap court hearing involving a stolen tiara.

So as you can deduce, I didn’t exactly go nuts over the story itself, and the musical sequences, except for the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number (saluted in the equally iconic Madonna video), sort of drift along without either enhancing or advancing the storyline. Monroe’s character comes off as particularly dated; her mantra of falling in love with a man’s money first and foremost makes her look like a complete gold-digger (at least now women don’t admit it). Russell’s the more sensible side – the superego to Monroe’s id, perhaps – but her romance, and romantic scenes, comes off as tepid as a Love Boat episode. No, strike that; I liked The Love Boat.

But the good news is that this is a Howard Hawks film, and it features his trademark rapid-fire delivery of snappy dialogue. Once again, dated, to be sure, but it makes for swift, smooth scenes – as easily digestible as they are largely forgettable. At a running time of roughly 90 minutes (even less if you discount the music), it’s a relatively easy watch.

Oh, I did forget one other element I liked: Jane Russell. I had not known much about her before, but I was impressed with her screen persona – a woman who acts and looks, despite her hairstyle, fairly contemporary. The sassy Hawks dialogue fits her well, and I’d actually prefer to see her in a sequel over her screen counterparts. For those of my generation, she’s best know as the Playtex Cross-Your-Heart bra spokesperson, but she clearly had a career before than, and apparently a pretty good one.

Frothy, frilly fun, but little more. Could be a good launching pad for more Monroe, and perhaps even Russell.

                              Rating: ***

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

This was one of my dad’s favorite movies. When conversation turned to the flicks he grew up with – the ones which really made an impression – Day always got a mention, and his eyes would light up with fondness and excitement. When we got cable in the 80s, I noticed that the Disney channel had it on their schedule, so I recorded it with our brand-new VCR. I showed it to him - the first time he had seen it since he was twelve – and he got that same look in his eyes.

I can see why he loved it; The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first alien-encounter films released by a major studio. But perhaps more importantly, it was also one of the first to use its topic matter metaphorically: it used its robots and flying saucers to comment on our own destructive, xenophobic tendencies, the same tendencies that have sustained a several-thousand year history of global carnage and destruction. (Its proximity in release to the end of WII also likely added to the sense of urgency and apocalyptic fear.) The critical and commercial success of Day begat other classics like War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, helping to ensure the 50s legacy as the Golden Age of serious science fiction.

Michael Rennie plays the alien Klaatu, who, along with his steely, voiceless robot buddy Gort, lands on earth in the middle of the Washington, D.C. mall. An unfortunate locale, as it turns out, for he is greeted not with open American arms but immense suspicion, and a shot by an army rifle when he flicks open a medical device. He is detained and questioned; his request for a meeting of the world leaders so he can explain is purpose cannot be granted. And so Klaatu, using an alias of Carpenter, escapes so he can mix and mingle among the common folk, hoping to ascertain exactly why this odd species has such difficulty working together.

He rents a room at a boarding house, befriending a widow named Helen (Partricia Neal), and taking her young son Bobby under his wing. Through the boy’s innocence, Klaatu gets the basics on earth, and learns why its inhabitants are so distrusting. But determined to get his warning across that the planet will destroy itself if allowed to continue on its current path, he succeeds in convincing an esteemed scientist to call together a group of colleagues for an audience. After getting shot again, ostensibly fatally (he us healed by Gort on the mother ship), he manages to deliver one final, scathing admonishment to the doomed earthling before heading back home. Oh well, he tried.

Day dates surprisingly well, perhaps because its sci-fi subject preserves its content in cheese, allowing for a disarming, kitchy sense of enjoyment. Or perhaps just having an earnest, clearly-told story holds up exceedingly well in a hyped-up era of cinematic excess. Whatever the reason, it’s a barrel of fun, and yes, it did make me think about the hostile, natavistic way our government, and its people, operates, even in a modern day setting (or maybe especially in a modern day setting). Sure, Klaatu does engage in a bit of Billy Jack-esque hypocrisy when he implores Earth to lay down its arms and be more peaceful, or else he may have to obliterate the entire planet, but such inconsistencies can be overlooked, even enjoyed, in the context of its Saturday-afternoon matinee spirit of fun pulp.

This, of course, was the career role for star Michael Rennie; despite over fifty years of experience in film and TV, it is the role of Klaatu for which he will be best remembered. Patricia Neal as Helen never looked more luminous – although it does seem as though most of her performance consists of looking upwards, in wide-eyed shock, at any given source of supernatutre. And once again we have Fox-contracted Hugh Marlowe as Helen’s fiancé and Klaatu’s betrayer – I’ve started now to appreciate the contract system, seeing a series of films from one studio and noticing the consistency in talent. Sure makes perfect sense for an actor – for the studio, you know they’re good, for the actor, steady work.

This one still deserves its classic status. Dad, you had good taste in movies, even at twelve.

                            Rating:  ****

Monday, October 17, 2016

All About Eve (1950)

For me, All About Eve was always a “Good for You” movie – critically, academically significant, haloed in that film-worshipping ether and untouchable to anyone who darest say ay nay about its indisputable merits. Sort of like Shakespeare. For that reason, I generally avoided the film until I saw it for a class at NYU, at which point I genuflected, purely out of obligation to my cred, but could hardly say I enjoyed it. I went back to my dorm room, watched Blue Velvet again on my VCR, and said to myself, “Now there’s a real movie.”

Of course, that was nearly 30 years ago, and I like to think I’ve matured since then. In fact, I know I’ve matured since then, and my proof is the fact that I now see how wrong I was about Eve – it’s a deserved classic – not a shiny icon on the mantle but a wonderfully entertaining, vibrant work of cinematic drama that not only contains stellar performances by its six lead actors but also a top-notch screenplay, a work that deserves to be considered as great literature. If at times it creaks a bit, reminding us of its early-50s time period, so be it – a film need not be saturated in postmodern irony or post-Brndo acting styles for it to matter. All the themes in Eve are timeless, and its characters grapple with same kinds of frailties and insecurities as we do.

As we begin, Eve Harrington has just accepted a major theatrical award, and we get a series of voice overs, by the other main characters, flashing us back and explaining what brought us here. Eve was a shy, adoring fan of the legendary Margot Channing (Bette Davis)m but she gets a chance to meet her idol through Karen, wife of the show’s playwright, Lloyd Richards. Eve proceeds to wait on Margot hand and foot, gushing over her with praise and curiousity over her path to success. We learn a bit about Eve too: she had come to New York after a tedious life, working at a brewery, and the recent tragedy of her husband’s death in the war.

But slowly, gradually, Eve edges in on Margot’s turf. The girl seems to more than a little flirtatious with Margot’s fiancé, film and theater director Bill Sampson, and she also steals the ear of influential critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who helps her land rave reviews and facilitate her ascension up the theater world ladder. After becoming Margot’s understudy, even Karen can’t help but be starstruck by the rising star – while on vacation with Margot and Bill she siphon’s out the gas tank, leaving them stranded so Eve can take over the show (a move she instantly regrets). But Lloyd has no regrets about allowing Eve to star in his new show; for him, it’s a feeling of liberation to have a role realized on stage exactly as he wrote it.

But Eve is perhaps the unspoiled flower she had heretofore passed herself off as. Contrite and earnest in public, behind closed doors she is Machievellian, tricking Lyold to coming over at 3 in the morning, and blackmailing Karen into giving her Margot’s big role. Only Addison is onto her, fully aware of her deceptions and invented histories (she had actually been given 500 dollars to leave her hometown). We come back to the present now, with Eve thanking her small circle of friends, all cleary guilt-wracked over their role in helping her. An Addison is still pulling he strings, upset that she’ll miss the after-party but encouraged by the prospect of future roles, further manipulations. When Eve repairs to her apartment she gets a visit from a stranger, Phoebe, who turns out to be just as fawning as she had been with Margot at the beginning of our tale. Eve, meet the new Eve; what comes around, goes around.

This film is so complex, so multifaced, so thematically profound that I’ll just stick to my salient observations, lest we be here all day. The thing I’ll always remember about Eve is how teasing it is – Eve starts out as so pure so fresh, so innocent, that her turn toward the dark side is a complete surprise. So gradual is the revelation that you keep thinking it’s not really happening – she’s still good, isn’t she? But alas, she isn’t; the beauty of the brilliant screenplay is that we’re fooled by her ruse just as much as the other characters. When they squirm out of stupefied guilt at the end during her acceptance speech, so do we.

And that’s the other brilliant element of the film: the conscious role the lead characters play as Eve’s accessories. She, as the grand, subtle manipulator, could almost qualify as the greatest movie villain ever for the way she tricks everybody into helping her. And their complicity gives the film an existentialist subtext – where is the right, where is the wrong when you, yourself think it is right? Even Eve herself, in the film’s coda, is a victim of her own machinations, and so ultimately the film’s truism becomes that greed and deceit are corruptive, ultimately omni-destructive traits, best left to be untouched, untampered with.

And I’ll focus my review of the writing by praising the speeches – oh, those wonderful speeches – starting with Bill’s (Gary Merrill’s) glorious ode to he theater existing anywhere and everywhere, to Davis’s classic bad-party forewarning (“Fasten your seat belts…), to Sander’s’ stinging rebuke to a house-of-cards-toppled Eve. Joe
Mankiewicz’s pen must’ve been on a fever pitch scrawling this stuff – it’s the twentieth century’s version of Shakespeare, tragic-hero fall and everything. Only this time, the villain is not at all whom we think it is.

‘Nuff analyzing, eh? Go out and rent this masterpiece. Or better yet, buy the Fox collection I’m blogging about. You’ll have your faith in the beauty, the wonder, the majesty of film reaffirmed in no time at all. Well, at leat the time it takes to watch all these gems.

                          Rating:  ****

Friday, October 7, 2016

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

No, Twelve O’Clock High is not, as I’d always thought until now, a high-school version High Noon. It is actually a woefully overlooked (by modern audiences at least) WWII film about American bomber pilots in England, and the particular kind of battle fatigue that afflicts them when they are pushed to their absolute limit. Catch 22, of course, would explore this topic years later with postmodern irony and surrealism, but High does so more conventionally, just as profoundly.

Through flashback by a man revisiting one of the airfields, we are introduced to the men of the men of the 984th Airborne Division – a weary lot, getting wearier by the second thanks to several documented cases of shock and the mental inability to go up again on the next mission. The military brass, needing the crew more than ever now that they’ve implemented daytime bombings at lower altitudes, blames Col. Keith Davenport, the C.O., and reassigns him on the grounds that he’d been getting too close to his officers – not enough of a authority figure. They send in General Savage (Gregory Peck), a calm, sensible man with air combat experience, but when he takes over the division – look out! He whips the outfit into shape with an iron fist, and informs the boys to toughen up in the missions. “Do you fear death?” he scolds. “Don’t. Consider yourself already dead.”

The rhetoric, understandably, does not go over well with the men, already missing Davenport’s friendlier rapport and proving it by requesting transfers – all of them – to another unit. But Savage gets the company clerk, Major Stovall, to delay the transfers long enough for morale to hopefully improve. Not so at first; Savage is still met with more suspicion than welcome, but after their first mission together camaraderie tightens and a sense of purpose returns to the group. And after one mission, ending with a successful bombing of a German munitions factory but the loss of one plane, Savage feels like is one of the flyboys himself. Perhaps too much like one –the general himself succumbs to the paralyzing shell shock that required his presence there in the first place, and the film ends with his infirmity, eased only by the fact that his last-minute replacements all returned home safe after yet another successful mission.

When High was first released, it boasted of using authentic aerial combat footage from the war (only four years old at that point), but, truth be told, it’s not seamlessly used, looking more faded and battered than the more studio-polished stock it surrounds. And in actuality, the battle footage as a whole, which occupies most of the final act of High, is rather dull. We’ve seen it before. What we haven’t seen is the sharp, authentic-sounding dialogue that comprises most of the story – almost play-like given its claustrophobic setting. It’s a fine-tuned drama that never really shows its hand: at first we think Davenport’s the hero, the well-meaning everyman, and then Savage comes along, and we suspect the theme will turn patriotic, that an “ends justifies the means” message will take over. And ultimately, it becomes clear that the primary polemic has to do with the stress and emotional ravages of air-combat, regardless of politics or patriotism or anything like that. And that, ultimately, is what makes Twelve O’Clock High a level-headed, important film about any war, not just WWII.

And the lynchpin of the whole thing – the true dynamic character that imparts the film with its driving force – is the performance of Gregory Peck as Gen. Savage. It’s a career work, no doubt about it, as he showcases a true spectrum of emotions, latent and otherwise, in a man who knows turret gunning and problem solving, but faces his greatest challenge with a new kind of warfare, a new kind of problem. Peck conveys the kind of class you only got with movies from this era, but he also commands the screen, not simply with his dialogue but with his attitude. And oddly, it’s the same kind of class he carried with him as Phillip Green from his previous film, Gentleman’s Agreement, worlds apart in nearly every aspect except quality.

But High is not an antiwar film- it forces us to confront the less-glorious aspects of battle, yet accedes that battle must still be fought, if necessary. It will be interesting to compare/contrast future Fox war movies like M*A*S*H, most decidedly antiwar, for a look at changing mores, changing wars, changing times.

Flashback bookends are effective too, reminding me of the same technique in Saving Private Ryan. The way the drones of the warplanes is used as a transition device is clever, and a bit haunting.

Ok, not a high school film - no teenagers (or at least 18 and under), but a riveting drama, and the fact that it’s a war film makes no difference. Fine characters, serving a deliberately told but solidly entertaining, affecting story.

                            Rating:  ****

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